I have always been a reflective person, from when I was a kid up in the plum tree in our backyard pondering my life, to my teenage years in boarding school when I sent my friends packets of letters every week. But my nephew Justin Andrew’s death in December made me go into myself in ways I’m still processing. I know grief intimately, but every grief is different. This time, I wanted a roadmap.
When I was packing for our move to the countryside last year, I found the journal I kept those last few months of my brother’s life. I hadn’t opened it since I finished filling its pages back in 2013, after he died. I tried to read it then, surrounded by the boxes that contained our lives, but it was too much. A few weeks after Justin died, I reached for it. I wanted to see myself back then. What did I do? How did I feel? What did I write? How did I cope? How did I make sense of that terrible loss? How do I make sense of this one?
The energy of the writing startled me. I read myself bargaining with God to keep my brother Carlos alive. I wrote about the natural juices I made him, the vegetable dumplings we both loved that I picked up on my way to see him at Weil Cornell on 68th St and York Avenue in Manhattan, the huge salads I made him eat with me. I was boxing three times a week then, hiking and running. Sometimes I’d rollerblade to the hospital from my apartment in Inwood, in uptown Manhattan. I was trying to inspire Carlos to live a more healthy life. It was naive, of course. The damage of 15 years of addiction and reckless living can’t be cured with exercise and healthy eating.
When he died, my writing grew angry. Even the metaphors were violent, aggressive. Reading the journal I was reminded of how angry my grief was for a time after Carlos’s death. It was white and it was hot and it terrified me. I made a home in it because it was easier to deal with than the grief that buckled my knees and threatened to take me out. Or at least it was for a while. I was angry when Justin was murdered, but I didn’t want to sit in that rage. I knew it could consume me. So instead, I went into myself, and started to question: Who am I? Why am I? Why do I do what I do? How do I want to show up for myself? My family? The world? It was the beginning of winter, I’d just received the Letras Boricua fellowship and was thus able to take time away from everything to be quiet and sit with myself. I did that for three months. Every day, I walked our land when the weather permitted, sat by the deck to watch the birds at the feeder, and I wrote and wrote and wrote, and I read and read and read. I realize now I was finding myself again.
I have been asked so many times: Why do you write such sad stories, Vanessa?
I believe they matter more.
I believe stories about grief and struggle mean more to us.
I believe this is because they have the power to teach us big lessons, when we write them and read them.
Yes, it’s true that writing these stories is extremely difficult. It’s why it’s taken me so long to write my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings. I’ve been working on it for fifteen years now. But these stories of hardship feel necessary to me.
Grief has taught me many things. One of the biggest lessons being that I can’t outrun it or avoid it. Trust me, I tried. When my second mom Millie died of cancer in 2005, I tried.When Carlos died in 2013, I tried. That’s why I didn’t run away from it when Justin died.
I returned to what I did after Carlos died, when the running wasn’t working, when I walked into my daughter’s room one day to check on her while she slept, like I’ve done every night since I brought her home from the hospital, and I realized I couldn’t leave her. That was the day I decided to live… I picked up a chair and sat in the grief. I grew really close to it. Put my ear to it and listened. Put my face to it and stared.
I did that through reading and writing. I read how others wrote about their grief.
One of the books I read was Ann Carson’s Nox, an epitaph in the form of a book, a facsimile of a handmade book Carson wrote and created after the death of her brother. She writes:
I have never known a closeness like that (…) I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.
I remember finding this quote by Anne Carson from Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides that I’ve written about, with, from, so many times in my journals, I almost know it by heart:
She asks, “Why does tragedy exist?” and then answers:
Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away all of his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore her head off and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.
These words made me examine the rage fueled grief that consumed me for a time, and ebbed the shame I felt about it.
The more I read and the more I wrote, the more I found meaning in these meaningless losses. Let me pause to say, finding meaning does not equate to gratitude. I have heard people say we should be grateful for the traumas we experience and the losses we endure because they made us into who we are. Fuck that, NO. Yes I am stronger and more resilient as a result of these devastating experiences, but I would rather have not experienced them. I would rather my brother still be here and my nephew still be alive. So, no, I’m not fuckin grateful. I’m saying I found acceptance…
Accepting loss is essential, but what comes after? To live on after tragedy requires more than acceptance.
David Kessler co-wrote two books about grief with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, who posited that grief can be divided into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. After Kessler’s 21-year-old son died of an accidental drug overdose, Kessler added another stage to grief: Finding Meaning.
Kessler writes: “This wasn’t what my life was supposed to look like, but I faced a decision that everyone faces in grief,” he says. “Is this just hideous, or can it be part of my son’s legacy and meaning that he comes with me to so many cities to help people?”
The word that comes up for me when I think about “finding meaning” is transmute/transmutation.
change in form, nature, or substance… "the raw material of his experience was transmuted into stories"
subject (base metals) to alchemical transmutation... "the quest to transmute lead into gold"
Which makes me think of a quote from one of my favorite personal essays by Chris Abani, “Ethics & Narrative: The Human & the Other.”
As a child growing up in post-civil war Nigeria, I had the unique opportunity to spend time working on the rice fields that my father owned. I say it was a unique opportunity because farm work, particularly the growing of rice, was considered women’s work. My father wanted us to learn everything about our culture, though, so as boys we were free to take part. I remember that as the women planted rice, they would sing mournful songs, dirges that were made up of the names of everyone in the town that had died during the civil war, as though the women could somehow seed the souls of the dead into the tender shoots of green they threaded through the mud of the rice fields. I learned the songs and sang along, threading with them, back bent. Months later, as we harvested the rice, the women would sing happy songs, and woven through them would be the names of all the babies born that year. The following planting season, we went back to the dirges. I had always assumed the songs were fixed seasonal ditties, designed to make the work easier. Later, I learned that this tradition was new and began just after the civil war, and that far from being seasonal, the songs were magical. I began to notice that the number of dead who appeared in the dirges dropped in proportion to the number of births that year. This wasn’t a simple belief in reincarnation, but the palpable and powerful transformation of sorrow and pain, and even an underlying anger and hate, into absolute redemption. These women, quietly, textually and bodily, in their way, were changing the narrative of the world.
In my sitting with grief, staring at it, marveling at it, turning it over and examining it the way a scientist does a sample under a microscope, I began to transmute my grief without even realizing that’s what I was doing.
I began writing about my brother in life, not just in death–about our childhood together and experiences as adults, how he loved the holidays and made no secret of it, dragging me to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, the windows along Fifth Avenue and Macy’s, Santaland, and shopping in Soho despite the fact that I didn’t have Soho shopping money; that time I wanted a pair of boots for my birthday and he took me to Gucci where he insisted I try on a pair of boots that cost more than my rent. My beloved brother had Gucci taste with a Walmart wallet.
I continued to transmute when I created the Writing the Mother Wound Class and expanded Writing Our Lives, eventually bringing it online.
I transmuted in 2016 when I challenged myself to write an essay a week, dubbing it The Relentless Files. And continued the journey the following year when I invited writers to join me in writing an essay a week, calling it #52essays2017. Hundreds of writers took on the challenge.
I transmuted by hiking, gardening on my deck when I finally had an outdoor space, writing stories like this one you are reading.
And this is how, through all of it, I found joy, or rather, I created it.
I transmute my grief when I create classes for writers to help them write their stories, their feelings, their everything. This is also how I create joy. And that’s why I created the Writing Joy Class I am facilitating this coming Wednesday, May 11th, 7-9pm EST.
I can write joy because I’ve experienced and written so much about grief.
I can write joy because I am deliberate about immersing myself in play and imagination in my writing process.
I can write joy because I’ve learned and practiced how to do so.
I can write joy because I know what it’s like to only write about loss and pain and hardship, when that’s the only thing you see in front of you. It’s so easy to forget that though I have experienced a great deal of trauma in my life (so much), I have also experienced a great deal of joy… I’m working on sharing more stories about joy. Stay tuned.
I wrote the artist statement below last year. I’ve been writing these for years, but never felt like I got it completely right until now. I mean, it’s HARD to try to put into words a relationship (between you and your art) that you’ve always felt intuitively.
This artist statement is the closest I’ve come to really capturing my relationship with and to my work.
My work is grounded in 1970s and 80s Bushwick, Brooklyn, a neglected black and brown neighborhood that I left when I was 13. In the white America I escaped to (boarding school in Massachusetts and later Columbia University for college), I was made to feel ashamed of my people and where I come from. I have spent my life unlearning this shame, and returning to Bushwick in my stories, to make visible the invisible, and chronicle our stories in the tradition of Esmeralda Santiago.
In the backyard of the building we lived in, next to a junkyard and across the street from a burnt out building, my mother created a garden oasis. I became a writer in the plum tree of that yard, and from my mother, I learned how to hold on to hope when you’re surrounded by neglect and suffering.
In that neighborhood, where La Borinqueña hung across avenues and salsa and freestyle boomed from passing cars, and from my second mom Millie, a self-proclaimed butch, I learned love for Puerto Rico and fierce pride in our culture. From Millie I learned to be brave. She’d grab the brim of her kangol and say, “Yo soy butch”, so she looked like she was dancing salsa but just with her shoulders. You had to be audacious to come out like she did in 1960s Lares, in a deeply Pentecostal family.
In my stories, I conjure my mother, Millie, and my old neighborhood. Bushwick before the $15 burger bars, yoga studios and organic markets; when we kids couldn’t go to the playgrounds because they were overrun by the dealers and fiends during the crack era, so we created our own play spaces in the junkyards that dotted the landscape and supermarket parking lots, demonstrating incomparable resilience and industriousness.
Bushwick where my mother made a living by selling pasteles en hoja in the winter, and in the summer, limbers in various flavors and fried treats like pastelitos, alcapurrias and piñones, using herbs and vegetables grown with her own hands.
In my writing, I do something my family didn’t do because they were too busy surviving--I write about our pain and suffering due to colonialism, racism, poverty and oppression. For me, this naturally leads to writing about joy, which is critical when we live in a world that tries to steal it at every turn.
Why do I share this now? Because this is at the heart of why I write about joy, and it’s why I created the Writing Joy Class.
What was/is joy to me?
Joy was finally climbing that plum tree after weeks of trying, scraping my knees and shins, scuffing my sneakers. I remember that feeling of accomplishment when I finally reached a high branch and sprawled my body across it. JOY.
Joy was every summer when the bulldozers came to push all the trash and rubble into the corners of a lot on Knickerbocker Avenue. That meant the traveling carnivals were coming to the hood with their rides (a ferris wheel, the flying swings, a Gravitron one year), the gambling tables, and trucks with every sweet imaginable, candied apples and my favorite, turron, a kind of Spanish confectionery resembling nougat, made from almonds and honey. JOY.
Joy is my daughter being awarded an extremely competitive four year merit scholarship to attend college in the fall, and knowing I had a hand in shaping her into this incredible young woman who fascinates me every day with her curiosity and independence. JOY.
Joy is my wife and me celebrating our three year wedding anniversary next week on May 10th and our seven year anniversary of meeting and falling in love in August. JOY.
Joy is bringing my mother to my land today to see my garden. Watching her get on her hands and knees to pull up some peonies at the root to plant on my aunt’s land a few miles away. Seeing the joy on her face when she looked up at me and said: “I love this.” JOY.
Joy is flashing back to watching her toil in her garden in 1980s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She raises her face to the sun and inhales deeply. The edges of her lips curl and she sighs the most tremendous, most satisfied sigh. It was the happiest I ever saw her. JOY.
Joy is seeing how far we’ve come. Our relationship is still charged sometimes and rarely easy, but worlds away from where we’ve been. JOY. JOY. JOY.
Let me tell you something else I’ve learned about joy—you have to be deliberate about creating and holding on to it.
This week we learned that Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned. We knew this was coming, but that didn’t make the news any less difficult to deal with. Conservative politicians and pundits, predictably, celebrated the development. Many of us who are pro a woman’s right to choose (aka pro-mind-your-damn-business), expressed our dismay. Activists took to the streets of the US capital and across the country, and many took to social media. I was among them.
In December I submitted an essay about 1994, the year I had an abortion & induced a miscarriage by throwing myself down a set of stairs. I was 18 & in a relationship with a man eight years older than me, who groomed me from when I was 14. I shared the news on my social media because that’s who I am, I share stories of my life and evolutions. I wrote:
Today I release myself of the shame I’ve carried. I did what I had to do, & have never regretted not having a kid then.
I’m feeling super protective of the Vanessa I was. I’ve been so hard on her. Now I wanna just hold her, tell her that I love her, I forgive her, I understand, & thank her for saving us.
I wasn’t going to post this here. Because I have family that follows me. Because there are people who follow me who know that man who was 8 years my senior. I’ve spent my life recovering and healing from that relationship. From what that man did to me. What I let him do… But I have nothing to be ashamed of. NOTHING.
The one person I needed to talk to before I went public was my daughter. Telling her was the hardest thing, for so many complicated reasons.
The thing is, when I found out I was pregnant with her, I never considered aborting. Never.
I owe no one anything else.
We carry these things that become vise grips around our necks. Our bodies keep the score. As a writer, this is how I process, release, forgive, let go and overcome. I either do this work or let it destroy me. I won’t give anyone or anything that power ever again.
The other day, journalist Maria Hinojosa posted about the abortion she had. Some fools climbed into her mentions to call her all sorts of terrible things. I felt the 80s Bushwick girl in me tie up her hair & smear Vaseline on her face. Later I realized what I was really doing was I trying to protect the girl I was who made the same decision. I knew then that it was time to get that story out of my body, journals, and memoir drafts. And as spirit works, I was asked to submit the story to an anthology.
This week, after hearing about the plans to overturn the 1973 Roe v WAde ruling, which legalized abortion nationwide, I shared an excerpt of that essay, titled 1994:
I was a girl in an abusive relationship and I was terrified. I didn’t have the support system I needed. Was I irresponsible? Yes. Was I traumatized? Yes. Do I regret not having a kid that year? No.
It is 27 years later. My daughter (not with him) is 17 and the Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe vs Wade.
I think back to the girl I was, who made those fucked up decisions.
Not having a kid as a teenager was not one of them. I did what I had to do. I was not ready nor was I equipped to be a mother.
I’ve sometimes thought of what my life would have been like had I had a kid back then. I thought about it when I was a single parent in my 30s. That time I took my daughter on a boat ride when she was seven. I hyped it up for days. Told her we would have a picnic in the park afterwards, cold cut sandwiches and juice boxes I brought from home. Told her I’d buy her her favorite ice cream cone, vanilla with chocolate crunchies. I took her to the Staten Island Ferry because it was free. I couldn’t afford anything else.
Years later, when I told her the story, she said she remembers the excitement of the boat ride, but she doesn’t remember feeling like she missed out on anything because of money. I did a good job hiding it from her. Poverty made me industrious.
I thought about it when that case worker shamed me when I went to renew the SNAP benefit I’d been getting for six months when my kid was six. I knew I qualified. I just needed some help feeding us. My salary and the child support I received were depleted after rent, bills, and childcare. I was drowning. I walked out of that office and didn’t look back. I never did extend those SNAP benefits, though I qualified for years. There were nights I went to sleep hungry. I made sure my daughter never did.
I struggled as an adult with means. Imagine what my life would have been like if I’d had a kid when I was just a kid. There are people who will wag their fingers at me, call me all sorts of names. I have spent a lifetime punishing myself for the choices I made out of trauma, and a lifetime healing from that toxic relationship.
I think about my daughter, the decisions she may make out of ignorance, youth, longing. If she ever came to me in a similar situation, que dios me la bendiga, I would let her make a choice, and I would support her and stand by her, no matter what. I would be for her what I wish I’d had.
The news that we will likely lose having autonomy over our bodies is not joyful news. But being able to release the shame I carried over something I did and don’t regret back when I was just a kid, is joyful.
There is joy in seeing people take to the streets in protest. I have read some hard stories on social media about the days before abortion was legalized. Stories that made me wince and cry. There is no joy in those stories. But there is joy in witnessing people tell their stories because they know the power in sharing to effect real change.
Grief, trauma and struggle have taught me to find joy wherever and whenever possible. To make it when I can, like I’m doing in my garden. To give it language. To share it. I spent enough time making grief a god. It’s the deity of joy I want to give a prominent place on this altar that is my life. Join me.
Do not make Grief Your God
by Mahogany L. Browne
Make it a cup of coffee
The espresso percolator wheezing on
the biggest eye
of the stove
Consider the dress
line up every spark you own
and weep at its small finalities
Hold each piece of silk and cotton
like the gone love/hero/heart
Name the garment, please
give Grief a name
Then fold it
Place it kindly in a home suitable
for royal things
Text every contact
In your cellphone
I love you
I love you
Try this same exercise with your email inbox
newsletter, spam and such correspondence
Each item will bounce back with your declaration
in the subject line:
I love you. I love you. I love you. you. you.
Glorious chant of remembrance
Praise the ability to feel this deep:
The goldfish. The grandparent. The ball player.
The children detained. The spoiled water. The
sewer spilt government. The son. The daughter.
The bullet. The gift of ghosting. The promise of
no more. The mother. The father. The empty
womb. The empty heart. The desertbranch throat
clenching tightly, a name no one will speak.
On the third day
pull yourself out of bed
wake with a start
Can you feel death’s bone milk?
Good. This means you are among
Good. This means your heart is yours
Do not drink from the glass
left next to the bed overnight
Do not drink from the glass
of the unknown
Find fresh water
Find fresh water
Become fresh water
Pour into yourself
On the fourth day
when you wake
leave Grief asleep if you can
If Grief is already sitting upright
on top of the duvet covers
next to your closet
on the nightstand
against the crowded windowsill
Call it by the name you’ve crowned it
Grief will watch you make the bed
and fluff the pillows with lavender oil
Invite Grief for a walk, remind it with a whisper
we all need fresh air
You and Grief
beneath the sun
You climb the stairs
pass the puddles of dew
and undisturbed dog shit
You and Grief
hands not touching
but feather whispclose
The light tips its full cup
Write your grief a letter. What do you want to say to grief? Why?
Now write joy a letter. What do you want to say to joy? Why?
When you’re done, put them both in separate envelopes and seal them. Then put them away somewhere, again separately. Between the pages of a book or journal, at the bottom of a drawer, in a closet or cabinet. And pray that you’ll find them again when you most need them. Amen.